Passing the Torch: A First-Gen Ph.D. Candidate on Becoming a Role Model

Ana Guadalupe Vielma with COE Dean Charles Martinez at the 2023 First-Gen celebration.

Ana Guadalupe Vielma discusses her journey as a COE PhD student and aspiring entrepreneur.
Photographed with Dean Martinez during First Gen Week 2023. 

At only 25, Ana Guadalupe Vielma has already reached some remarkable academic and professional milestones. She earned her Master’s in Education in the spring of 2023 and is just a few months shy of her PhD, with a focus on Human Development, Culture, and Learning Sciences. She’s also established herself as a role model on campus, founding a program called First-Gen C.O.R.E. that provides mentorship and support to first-generation students. But Ana’s accomplishments didn’t come without challenges; the COVID-19 pandemic nearly disrupted her academic progress just as it was beginning, and her position as one of the few first-generation Latinas in her program left her feeling isolated. We talked with Ana about her experiences working through the program at UT and why her unique perspective holds value.    

What is your specific area of research?  

My dissertation focuses on first-generation students, specifically undergrads, and their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a first year PhD student in 2019, I had one semester in-person before COVID completely disrupted education. At the time, I was studying how financial stress impacted first-generation students, and when COVID hit, it really amplified that pressure. It was no longer just about financial stress, it was about health disparities, it was financial-social regulations, and how we were going to navigate this new normal. So three years later, I created a program called First-Gen C.O.R.E., which stands for Cultivating Opportunities, Resources, and Equity, to explore these perspectives and really highlight the experiences of first-gen students at the University.  

What were your observations coming in as a first-gen student in the time of COVID? 

It was very overwhelming coming into a new program, and one semester really wasn’t enough to solidify the foundation of what the PhD program would look like. As a first-gen student myself, I had a lot of questions coming in, but fortunately I was able to cultivate a small community, including my advisers and some friends who were a bit older and had more experience in the program, so I was able to go to them and never be afraid to ask questions and find the answers.  

What advice would you give to someone in your position? 

I think it would be to just trust yourself and trust the process. There were a lot of moments of frustration and anger and wondering, “Am I supposed to be here? Do I belong in this environment as a first-gen Latina?” But I knew my research would make an impact one day, and I believed what I was doing was important and would aid and support other students like myself.  

What would you say your identity as both first-gen and Latina posed any challenges for you?  

Those intersectional identities really come into play, same with my age. When you look at me, I look 12, so coming into a room and knowing how I present myself as a young first-gen Latina, it all goes hand-in-hand. At the end of the day, I’m still an underrepresented individual here at the institution. I’m constantly building that bridge between the communities and institutions to make sure that others like me know that we belong here and deserve to be at the table.  

Where do you see yourself after completing your PhD? 

I’ve really enjoyed the research aspect of the program. At the moment I’m working as a project associate for an NIH-funded grant for one of the larger healthcare communities in New Jersey, Hackensack Meridian Health, and I get to focus on my research skills, which are really valued. And so I really see myself continuing to build my brand as a first-generation student, building those bridges for the community and continuing to conduct my research and expanding that practice.  

Do you want to be a professor or an academic going forward?  

I keep telling people that I’m open to opportunities. At the moment I’m really focusing on applied settings, but academia will always be there. I’m only 25, so I’m looking forward to taking a little break, taking a step back, and hopefully finding some interests in industry that I can bring back to academia later.  

Are you interested in staying in Texas or exploring opportunities elsewhere?  

I’m from the Rio Grande Valley and have lived in Texas my whole life. I’ve always told people I’d be interested in working on the east coast, maybe D.C., where I can work in a policy setting. Nothing concrete so far, but I think my perspective would be valuable in places like that where we’re underrepresented.  

What would you say your impact on UT has been and what would you like it to be going forward? 

I think that my legacy comes down to the people who pass the torch, so I feel like I’m part of that chain. I think that serving as a role model or an example to other underrepresented students will show them, “If she can do it, so can I.” I’m so blessed to be here, and I recognize the power and privilege that I have being part of the community and focusing on the research that I do. Serving as a voice that can emphasize and amplify the other voices in the community, I really do recognize that I have that in my practice. I feel so thankful for those who believed in me; all it takes is for one person to see your potential, and I wouldn’t be here if not for my mentors, my family, my friends, my professors, everyone who took a chance on me. I really want to extend that gratitude to the community for really believing in a 20-year-old PHD student. I talk in my dissertation about a Spanish saying, “Y lo hice sola,” which means “I did it alone,” but I also did it in recognition and gratitude for all those who sacrificed to get me here today. It’s about honoring that tradition and knowing that you’re honoring those who came before you while also being a trailblazer.